I imagined that ultimately my long early morning river swims would be brought low by cold. The swimming is fine, it’s the shivering afterwards I can live without. It seems however that it will be rainfall that finally draws a line at the river as more and more often it is simply too flooded to swim. In that respect ‘Storm Brian’ has made the River Dart unswimable.
Fortunately there is the sea nearby and with some careful planning it is usually possible to find somewhere safe to swim no matter what the general conditions. The forecast for Sunday morning is strong and gusty westerly (ie blowing from the west) winds so in that respect somewhere under the higher east facing cliffs looks appealing. The sky is supposed to be clear and a sunrise has been ordered (though as I drive off in the dark it is raining which doesn’t seem promising). It will be high tide so the current will be flowing northwards, a spring high tide which means flowing quite fast too. The bay on the north side of Hope’s Nose is therefore an ideal location with one little note of caution. The tide will sweep by the end of the headland leaving the bay sheltered, but, when it hits Black Head on the far side some flow will be turned back into the bay so that swimming there and back is not as straight-forward as it seems.
The sun just lifts above the horizon as I walk down the hillside and that creates a prolonged sunrise as the two changes in relative position just about cancel each other out. The water however is grey in the shade of the cliff and a big swell surges over the pebbles though the surface is only a little choppy. It is quite chilly in the water and out with the wind coming northerly across the bay. Consequently my plan changes as swimming directly across the bay and head on into the wind and swell will be unpleasant even with or especially because of the current; wind over tide creates the worst in choppy water. I will instead swim close in under the cliff, into the current, but out of the wind.
I push my way along under the dark and somewhat foreboding cliffs. One thing is for sure there is no way out of the water along here as the first exit is a tiny beach towards the far end of the bay and a long flight of steps up to someone’s garden. As I reach the bay I also cross the meridian into the sunshine, my direction of travel now working with the rising sun. The cliffs light up and the sky glows blue above the trees. Two cormorants are winging towards me, flying into the sun and clearly they’ve not seen me. They are only a few meters ahead of me and possibly only 1 meter above the water when they suddenly swing one left and one right and I feel the downdraught of their wing beats.
Out by the point and I swim through a patch of dead water flecked with leaves and twigs and suddenly I am swimming forward at twice the pace I was as the tidal current catches me. I am going only as far as the point, another 30m or so, no further as I have to swim against this next.
The swim back is something of a chore especially once I re-enter the shadow of the cliffs and everything once more loses its vibrancy turning now to dull shades of brown and khaki with the trees black silhouettes against the sky. Returning to the beach is something of a relief. However no sooner have I stepped from the water and pulled a towel from my bag than I look down to the waves swirling around the rock and no more than 5m from where I am standing a seal is bobbing in the waves. At this close range I can clearly see individual whiskers and the stippled fur. We look at each other, then the seal ducks under, resurfaces 5m further out and then gently floats out of sight around the next big rock. I suspect this may be the seal that hangs about here and takes fish from the hooks of the fishermen and once he realizes I have no food he’s off to someone who might.
There is a moment now for a quick litter pick and it’s off home after an already eventful morning even though it is not yet 10 o’clock.
Even in quite big floods there are ‘safe’ places to swim in the river but it is little fun having to fight against currents and cooler water. So, as a consequence of recent weather conditions the river has been off limits and sea swimming has begun to feature again.
The sea around here is at its coldest in the middle of February when temperatures can dip to 5 or 6 Celsius. The temperature then trends upwards to 19 or 20 Celsius in mid-September where after it dips sharply towards the New Year. The most pleasant swimming is to be had therefore between now, early June and September.
There are however 2 factors that stand in the way of a long happy summer at sea and the first is already upon us: the jellyfish are here early this year. They can be wonderful to watch, the huge ‘barrels’ and the transparent ‘crystals’, but it is the compass that come in greatest numbers.
The compass are undoubtedly pretty but they can leave a rash a little like a nettle and they can trail tentacles with sting cells (nematocysts) for up to 2m. They are also very quick in the water, they don’t just waft on the current and they can ‘see’. Often if you are able to swim close to them and throw a shadow on them they will in a matter of moments be heading downwards out of harm’s way.
One compass, two compasses, they are most often seen few and far between but when the currents are just right they can mark out the boundary between apparently indistinct bodies of water. On one such evening last year off Meadfoot Beach the boundary stretched nearly a kilometre and as a ready reckoner I estimated the number at over 5000. I was very glad to be on the paddleboard at the time.
The other is the algae. That has been awful the last few years and out of nowhere the shore waters look like they are filled with mulched tissue paper, except it is reddish-brown and it stinks of prawns beyond their best before date. Some bays and beaches fill completely and in other places it can form a coastal swathe 100m out to sea. Swimming in it is vile and it stays with you for a day or two no matter what.
So between cold water, algae and jellyfish there is a window of opportunity and that would seem to be right here, right now.
Scabbacombe is unofficially a naturist beach, though what The National Trust who own it might think about that I’m not sure.
Now, if you want to go and take your clothes off and lie in the sun then fair enough Scabbacombe is quite discrete as beaches go.
The key word in that sentence is ‘discrete’.
This is a public beach, people take the kids there and whilst nudity is the natural state there is a subtle difference between ‘lie in the sun’ and ‘sprawl in the sun’. And, discrete to display to flaunt to flashing is a continuum that means different things to different people under different circumstances.
I am however aware that I am to some degree in residence in a glass house here. I cannot be doing with the towel two step let alone dry robes, adopting instead the ‘get changed, do it swiftly and discretely and don’t look at the person standing next to you’ method.
Now, if I stood and stared at one of the naturists I am fairly sure I’d get a slap. Why then should one of them feel it appropriate to stare at me (wearing my swimming leggings, a sure indicator that I’m not one of the flashing community) and then come up to me to discuss the merits of waterproof cameras whilst hanging in the breeze?
By all means do your own thing, but please do it over there.
I have nothing against naturists.
And I would like to keep it that way.
But all that said, it is only for a few weeks in the year; September to May I have the place to myself.
Either there are more seals or they are less shy than they once were. Even back 10 years ago I considered it quite a moment to see a dark head silhouetted against the blue water, though usually only at a distance.
I have had some exciting close encounters too, both good and bad.
There was the time a drifted down the tide near Bell Rock and got within yards of what looked like a pup just shedding is baby fur where he was basking on a rock. Another time I found a lobster pot buoy wedged high and dry on some rocks and having untangled it and the length of rope I towed it back to the beach with an inquisitive seal getting steadily closer and closer. Then there is always the seal at Churston Cove who thinks it is fun to swim up and bump your feet, then surface a few feet away watching and waiting and as soon as you swim off again she bumps again. The first couple of times it made me jump, now it is part and parcel and I know the feel of seal to be soft and yielding and a bit like wet chamois leather.
That has been good to know because there have been other times when something has bumped me and I am now able to tell; it’s soft and a bit slippery, it’s a seal.
Some of those encounters have however not gone so well. In murky water a seal finds out what you are: food, something to be avoided, something to be chased away or something to get, ahem, more friendly with, by biting. A seal’s head is actually not dissimilar to a dog’s only 4 times the size and several investigative bites have left me with nicks in my wetsuit or dribbling blood. Some people get a bit worked up by that: seal’s bites are infectious, go and get antibiotics. For me or the seal? I have been around long enough, much of the time up to my elbows in it that any seal foolish to bite me probably will need antibiotics, but if it thinks I limping to the vet to help it out it can damn well think again.
All in all though I have been bitten frequently enough to have developed a 6th sense. I had a feeling there would be one at St Mary’s Bay the other day and there it was, an inquisitive young one who got within 10 feet of where I was wading in the shallows, but I was going no further and sure enough a little further out an altogether larger, darker, more menacing profile rose and submerged. A second young one bobbed up too.
Seals at Churson, Elberry, St Mary’s and even Newfoundland Cove are almost a case of more often than not. Mansands, rarely, Long Sands once, Scabbacombe once or twice.
Today it’s a little after low tide, the sand has been stripped from the foreshore leaving the water full of sand and silt and I just know that somewhere out there today, waiting …. I can feel it, just like you know, though it may only have happened a few times in your life, you know when you wake up that there has been snow overnight. It is as if you can hear that anechoic silence. Somewhere out there in that flat calm sea, I can feel it.
I wade out scanning the water. Nothing. I swim out to clearer water. The gulls are nesting on the cliff and start yammering away at me. One of them swoops down harrying me, skimming the water just a few feet away then rising up at the end of the pass, making a loop and then back it comes. This is a regular springtime game here and will be kept up until I turn away from the cliff. Another gull passes higher overhead and tries a more direct approach pattern bombing the water to my right, its aim is rubbish, fortunately.
I have crossed the bay and swum back to the beach and reached the shallows where I can stand. Scanning along the surf line and I see there, not 20m away, is a dark head. It ducks down looking guilty and resurfaces, the water can be no more than waist deep. We stare at each other and again the seal ducks down only to be forced back up immediately by the next wave. Then with a casual turn that says ‘I was leaving anyway’ it slides under the water again and vanishes.
And this is how things should be, he keeps his distance over there and I’m not bleeding.
Well that’s not quite true, there has been sunshine. There has also been a lot of rain and almost constant howling gales and, hand on heart, every time I have stepped outside things have been perfect right up to the moment I’ve got to the beach.
Take last Tuesday for example. It was an extremely low spring tide which gave me the opportunity to walk the shoreline from Mansands to Scabbacombe without the scrambling. The air was still and warm in the sunshine, and in the shelter beneath the high cliffs spring was indeed in the air. Until that is I reached the tricky headland at the far end of Long Sands. Now the wind funnelled across Scabbacombe beach, the clouds appeared out of nowhere and spread rapidly out from the cliff top and with them came the rain. Icy cold rain driving in sheets. In seconds the dry rocks were transformed into water slides and by the time I reached the relative shelter of the beach and cliffs I was wringing wet. I could not have got any wetter if I’d walked into the sea, and I would have got a lot colder either.
I squelched up the hill along the footpath that was now a mud filled stream, the wind still whipping me with bucketful after bucketful of rain.
Bad luck you say. Conspiracy I say because no sooner had I reached the car than the clouds blew away and the sunshine returned. And that is not the only time this has happened in recent weeks. Last Friday it was almost a repeat performance at Breakwater Beach.
And damn it, it is going to do the same again, I am jogging back down North Boundary Road to the car to grab my bag to walk down to Fishcombe Cove and the rain is darting at me from the one and only cloud in the sky. The cloud is following me. I turn the corner and the cloud turns to follow. I dither under the tailgate of the car until the cloud losses interest and then nip across the road and duck under the tree cover, if I’m lucky the cloud won’t notice until it’s too late.
Fishcombe Cove across to Churston Cove is bathed in sunshine and is sheltered from both wind and waves. It’s a little after high tide but it is only a low neap, coming barely half way up the newly rebuilt steps. The steps got wrecked last autumn and I thought there was little chance they would be repaired as they are out of sight and suffer few users, austerity cut-backs being what they are. However, both these and the bottom couple of steps on the coast path over at Churston Cove have been restored. However, standing on the lowest step in the waist deep water which is suffused with green light and quite clear down to the seabed of jumbled stones and wispy seaweed fronds, the chill of the water is a sharp reminder that despite the warm sunshine spring officially is still two weeks away (Monday 20th March, 10:29 local time in the UK).
I push off from the step and I am quickly out of my depth. Out in the middle of the bay the waves swing up and down with their crests just breaking into myriad glittering jewels. People are watching from Churston Beach. I am watching for the seal who can be friendly and also less friendly.
Lying back and kicking up fountains of water I glance over my shoulder and spy the grey blanket of cloud sweeping over Torquay. It is rising up over the headland and sweeping my way. That is my signal to leave.
I am towelling furiously as the first raindrops hit. Forget it, clothes on, now! A dash of rain hits and instantly the concrete walkway darkens, but I am already hauling my sweatshirt on and begin stuffing my towel into the bag. I’m done and have just time to wave at the lady now going in for her swim before dashing for the meagre shelter of the trees.
It’s just normal, perfectly healthy paranoia. Everyone suffers from it.
But that doesn’t mean the clouds are not following me.
It surprises me that time and again I see comments on swimming forums along the lines of: “we went for our swim but the tide was out”, “the river was in flood” and of course “we went looking for this swimming place but couldn’t find it.” Some of these are merely an inconvenience, but on other occasions having made the effort to reach a place it may become a case of ‘swim and be damned’ even if conditions are dubious and swimming best avoided.
Consequently it would perhaps be helpful then to highlight some of the prolific on-line resources that can be accessed before ever setting foot outside the door. Web site addresses are given at the end and were current and working when this was published.
Where am I going today?
For South Devon I would like to claim that my Google Map Click Here is the definitive outdoor swimming resource. It’s not of course as it is not possible to regularly keep up with the 180 places I have listed. However, when planning out your trip there are many map resources some more helpful than others.
My personal favourite is ‘Streetmap’. This is less a route planner than some of the others but gives greater detail on the chosen location and offers a very comprehensive ‘smart search’ for town or village names etc. but also ‘features’. If, for example, you search for Red Lake then one of the four results and the only one in Devon is a favourite swimming place out in the middle of Dartmoor.
The standard view is 1:50000, but the stepped scales include the 1:25000 Ordnance Survey mapping, with details of parking places, footpaths, public access land, etc. and is perhaps the most useful level of detail.
Maps are of course all very well but they don’t show you for instance if the car park will hold 5 cars or 50. As an example the National Trust car park at Prawle Point is shown on the OS Map and from that information alone you will know that a parking fee is due from non-members. This is where ‘Google Earth’ comes in to its own, which is free from Google and provides the clearest and most up-to-date views. Zoomed in to a scale that shows individual cars it is a little blurry, but it is simple enough to pick out footpaths through fields, roadside lay-bys that will take a single car and for swimmers both the place they plan to swim and importantly access points to the water. The current view shows 7 cars in the car park at Prawle Point and clearly from that it is apparent it will take about 15 at the very most. There is no other parking for some distance and putting all that together it is simple enough to work out that arriving early is probably advisable.
Panning and tilting the Google Earth view is also a good way to visualise the profile of the location, for example, how steep the cliffs are. Using the ‘Ruler’ utility on the task bar allows you to make ‘as the crow flies’ measurements or plot and save a route with waypoints and of course you can place markers for your favourite (swimming) places with appropriate icons.
The above are all very well but they won’t give you a clear picture of the actual location. Simply searching the likes of Google for the location and selecting ‘images’ will very likely provide you with an abundance of photographs. For example searching for Sharrah Pool on Google provides hundreds of hits, but these are not always 100% reliable. As I am looking at it today the 8th image is not Sharrah Pool (it’s 3 skinny dippers at Wellsfoot) and even reputable resources like wildswim.com get it wrong (FYI that’s Bellpool) either because the individual image is wrongly tagged or because it has been taken for example from a blog post about visiting Sharrah Pool and the picture has been pulled out because of the tags associated with the blog and not the individual image. However, some people do post pictures blissfully unaware of where they were when they took it.
There are also other swimming themed maps, which may give directions, images and safety information. However, most of these rely on input from individuals that is usually not peer reviewed. Using Sharrah Pool again as an example you could have a description that says ‘a 2 mile, 40 minute walk, from the car park through woodland along a clear path to the 100m long, deep pool with places to jump in’. As it stands that is correct, it is exactly 2 miles and the path is reasonable, but if you were not so agile on your feet or were visually impaired it would be challenging (and I have lost count of the number of people I have had to give directions to because they have turned back or otherwise assumed they have lost the way). The pool is often quoted as ‘100m’, but only 70m is deep enough to swim. There are places to jump in, but they are not the places that appear immediately obvious and there are a lot of underwater rocks that cannot be seen. And the river is prone to flash flooding in this deeply cut valley that takes run off from a large area of very wet moorland. Simply put, one person’s idyllic swim could very easily be another person’s nightmare if the information is taken at face value without due consideration for changing weather and seasons.
That leads very neatly to: What is it like today?
How, you may be thinking, is it possible to find out what the water conditions are right now without going and taking a look? Once again the internet is your friend.
Begin with a weather forecast. There are numerous resources but for simplicity I like the BBC. Some information is immediately obvious: is the sun shining? Then take sunscreen. Is it raining or going to rain? Then take a coat but also use common sense in so much as, if it is raining heavily now will the river be in flood when the sun comes out this afternoon?
Other information is available and can be used to make informed choices. Most forecasts show a wind speed and direction which is particularly relevant at the coast. If there is a strong onshore wind the chances are that the sea will be rough. However, it may be that a short distance away, on the other side of a headland for example, the wind is conversely blowing offshore and the beach is in the lee of high cliffs. The sea is therefore likely to be sheltered and calm, but that strong wind is blowing offshore and if you go out of the shelter of the headland you may well find getting back in to the beach is a challenge.
‘Magicseaweed’ provides possibly the easiest means to access actual wave height measurements in real time from a network of buoys at sea. You don’t need to guess how rough the water is, you can find out right now.
Before considering sources of information on tides it would be as well to outline why there are tides in the first place. The short answer is because the gravity of the sun and moon pull the water on the surface of the Earth towards them making the water bulge, but in a balancing act that stops the whole affair spinning hopelessly out of control the bulge on one side of the Earth is matched by a second on the opposite side of the planet. The Earth rotates every 24 hours and because the bulges are held in place by the forces of gravity the apparent effect is that 2 waves sweep around the Earth 12 hours apart giving 2 high tides at any point every day (and 2 low tides to maintain the balance). From this simplistic model it would be reasonable to assume that each day the high and low tides will happen at the same time of day and I know people who have made that assumption only to find there was no water at the beach.
The situation is however made more complicated by the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun every year and the Moon orbits the Earth every 29 days. Consequently the time of high tide advances by about 6 hours every 7 days. For example, if at a beach high tide is at 12 noon on day 1, 7 days later it will be low tide at noon, 7 days later high tide again (except the 29 day lunar cycle does not divide equally by 7 days, nor does the Earth orbit the Sun exactly every 365 days so the times slowly creep).
Finally, if the Sun and the Moon are on the same side of the Earth or oppose each other their gravities work together to produce higher than average ‘spring’ tides, but if they are at 90 degrees to each other in the sky the gravities work against each other to give smaller than average ‘neap’ tides.
There are again many tidal resources on-line but UK Admiralty ‘EasyTide’ has information for sea ports all around the world, an easy map based locality finder and free predictions for 7 days. There is also a simple adjustment for British Summer Time. The graphical interface also shows the spring and neap tides from which you can deduce how fast the tide will be moving as generally a bigger tide = faster flow.
From the point of view of the observer standing on a beach it would appear that a tide comes in and goes out, rises and falls. However thinking about a bulge of water that creates a wave moving around the world analogy it should be apparent that as the ground seemingly approaches the bulge it would be as though the water is moving towards you and once past the bulge the water is moving away. If the beach looks east-west then the water will apparently come in and go out, but looking north-south the water will apparently move sideways and then reverse. A sailing almanac has port-by-port charts showing current flow direction throughout a full day along with flow speeds as the tide rises and falls.
‘Visit My Harbour’ provides larger scale overviews and taking Torbay as an example it is easy to see that as a general principal 3 hours either side of high tide the current flows eastward (northward in the confines of Torbay due to the shape of the coast) but westward (southward in the bay) 3 hours either side of low tide. The flow is not generally great but can become locally magnified due to the shape of the seabed and coastline. Consequently if swimming off a beach in Torbay currents are not a major worry, but Thatcher Rock is only a few 100m off shore and it would be tempting to swim out to it, after all, how could you go wrong? Except that when the current flows it becomes confined in the channel and will rush by at 8 to 10 Knots (roughly mph) and becomes a churning mess and if you try to swim in that then you might get to France but you are unlikely to get to Thatcher Rock.
For rivers a similar resource is available in England through the Environment Agency (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are covered by independent resources). The EA maintains an extensive network of river level monitoring stations and the data is displayed graphically on-line sometimes as an almost live feed, though a 3 hour lag is often the case. The information shows the normal river level and also the changes to the level over the preceding 5 days. Crucially from the pattern of data it is easy to see if the river level is rising upstream and thereby work out if it is likely to be coming on to flood downstream where you intend to swim.
There is however no substitute for actually being able to see right here and now what conditions are like at the beach or in the river. Fortunately there are web cams at many locations though feeds are often lost for days or weeks. Magicseaweed on-line offers a drop down menu for coastal web cams though it is not exhaustive and Farson Digital Water Cams covers many inland waters. So for example as I write this I can see that the water in the River Dart at Buckfastleigh has dropped back from the flood conditions of the weekend but that the surf at Bantham means it would not be favourable for a swim around Burgh Island any time soon.
All of this may seem out of proportion just to go swimming but it can make all the difference. For instance early on Sunday morning the sky was clear, there was a beautiful sunrise and no wind at home with my choices being the River Dart or Teignmouth Beach. A few moments researching conditions whilst drinking a coffee told me the river level was falling and was nearly back to ‘normal’ and that there would be no wind. Whilst those were ideal swimming conditions I would rather have gone to Teignmouth. Clearly however, even though the wind had dropped the surf kicked up at Teignmouth by the storm overnight on Friday had not lessened. Consequently I had my pleasant if rather dull river swim and later saw comments by someone who had intended to swim at Teignmouth and got there only to find the sea unswimmable. “Smug mode.”
All in all taking a look at some of these resources whilst planning a swim, understanding the implications and finally checking other details just before setting off can make the difference between a great swim and a huge disappointment.
Resources: (most can be found by searching on-line for the web site name rather then copying the URL)
10°C or less and I set the time I can comfortably be in water without the wetsuit as 1 minute for every degree, so 5 degrees, 5 minutes. Fairly straight-forward. But if it is a sunny day that time can extend out several minutes as it is surprising how much warmth the sun gives both to the water and of course drying afterwards. The trick is not to outstay the welcome.
Today is one such gloriously sunny day and there is not a hint of breeze. The sea oozes crudely like oil, but, unlike oil, it is clear (up to a point) and bottle green in the depths. Diving from the rocks into the green depths I hardly notice the sharp chill. Re-surfacing and the water behind me effervesces.
I swim off under the cliff where the low winter sunshine blinks at me through the bare trees and dips and rises above the edge of the cliff as the gentle swell lifts and drops me.
The rocks here have been gnawed by barnacles and dissolved by seawater so as to become deep pitted and sharp fluted. It is fascinating to look at but painful to bump into and after just a few moments in the water my fingers and toes are already numbing with the chill and I know from experience I would not feel a thing if I were to grate across the surface, only feeling it later when I notice the blood.
The beach opens up ahead where there are a few walkers and their dogs, but otherwise it is a typical January mid-day, all quiet on the beach front.
My fingers and toes are really numb now and clambering out over the sharp rocks takes a little more care than usual. I have clearly been in too long as despite the added sunshine there are cold fingers skittering up and down my spine and I have got the shakes, I definitely overstayed my welcome.